News & Commentary

February 27, 2023

Morgan Sperry

Morgan Sperry is a student at Harvard Law School.

In today’s News and Commentary, organizers and union leaders are drawing attention to old-school union-busting by new-economy employers, high-profile companies are employing migrant child workers, and new prospective Labor Secretary candidates are entering the conversation. 

On Sunday, in a Guardian article by Steven Greenhouse, organizers and union leaders sounded the alarm regarding the aggressive union-busting being deployed in reaction to recent high-profile labor victories. As Ben notes, even “progressive” companies like Starbucks and REI are engaging in “the old, anti-union playbook on a national scale,” including by “firing union organizers, threatening to close stores, closing stores, not bargaining, holding captive audience meetings, selective granting of benefits. To observers of labor, this has been going on for a long time. What’s different is these companies that hold themselves as different and progressive – they’re proving they’re not.” Organizers also take issue with labor law’s weak system of penalties (the penalty imposed for illegal retaliation, for example, is generally just an order that the company post a bulletin board notice admitting that it broke the law), which fails to encourage meaningful deterrence. As Lynne Fox, the president of Workers United, observes, employers who cannot be fined for illegal activity have simply integrated labor violations into “the cost of doing business.” Finally, organizers are calling out various companies’ refusal to bargain in good faith. Starbucks and REI workers who won union victories a year or more ago, for instance, still have not secured contracts.

Next, the New York Times’s Hannah Dreier published an exposé over the weekend on how migrant children are working dangerous, low-wage, physically punishing industrial jobs in violation of child labor laws. Many of these child laborers work for high-profile, global companies: “In Los Angeles, children stitch ‘Made in America’ tags into J. Crew shirts. They bake dinner rolls sold at Walmart and Target, process milk used in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and help debone chicken sold at Whole Foods.” One ninth-grade social studies teacher in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where fifteen-year-olds operate deadly heavy machinery to package Cheerios, noted that some of his students were passing out in class, stating: “It’s the new child labor. You’re taking children from another country and putting them in almost indentured servitude.” In recent years, several migrant child workers have been killed on the job—with no meaningful policy interventions made in response. The Department of Health and Human Services, the entity tasked with tracking and supporting migrant children, has lost contact with 85,000 of them.

Finally, as Elyse and Greg reported last week, President Biden is considering various replacements for outgoing Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. The White House continues to vet current deputy labor secretary Julie Su, who would be the first Asian American to serve as a Cabinet secretary in the Biden Administration and has the support of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus as well as much of organized labor. Reporting this weekend indicates that the latest prospective candidate is President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA International Sara Nelson, who has received the endorsement of Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Meanwhile, some labor leaders are pushing President Biden to select the outgoing Executive Director of the National Football League Players Association, DeMaurice Smith. Having vowed to be “the most pro-union president in history,” President Biden’s choice will be closely scrutinized.

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